Tensions between Russia and the United States appear to have crescendoed in recent weeks, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama exchanging tough remarks at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. While Putin touted Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, Obama decried the Syrian president as the root of the conflict and the refugee crisis. Although both leaders have remained steadfast in their depictions of Assad, the US’s position seems to be wavering on whether Assad should play a role in a future post-conflict transition.
In an apparent reversal of an August declaration that Assad must step down in order for the conflict to end, Secretary of State John Kerry explained during a CNN interview on September 30 that Assad will be integral to successfully negotiating an end to the conflict and transitioning to an electoral democracy. Although Obama did not go as far as Kerry during his remarks at the UN General Assembly, he did say that despite the blood on Assad’s hands, “realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader,” implying that Assad’s departure is no longer a pre-condition to negotiations.
The question left lingering after Obama’s statement at the UN is, what does a “managed transition” entail? Does it incorporate justice for victims of mass killings, torture, rape, and the use of chemical weapons? Will Syrians see justice meted out against the members of the Syrian government who ordered these atrocities? Or will a managed transition sideline justice in favor of an immediate end to the conflict, thus immunizing high-level perpetrators from reprimand in the process?
Syrians are losing hope. A clear outline for what a managed transition would look like, along with a firm commitment to adhere to the plan, would help restore some hope and give Syrians a vision to work towards in collaboration with international partners. Both Kerry and Obama have emphasized the importance of an electoral process, but post-conflict transitions involve more than just elections. A true transition includes a plan for disarmament, infrastructure and economic reconstruction, refugee repatriation, justice for atrocities and property damage, and the reform of institutions to adhere to the rule of law.
These steps require massive investments of time and resources, without which a vacuum will be created that could result in a regression to the pre-2011 status quo, akin to Egypt, in which the revolution was a blip in the autocratic chain of power; or worse, Yemen, in which violence eventually reignited due to the lack of buy-in for the transitional process. While it is true that the harsh reality of the conflict might force Syrians in the opposition to accept undesirable proposals, the ultimate deal will be meaningless if it sacrifices justice. As SJAC has previously discussed, lessons-learned from Iraq and Lebanon demonstrate that peace deals that do not address justice are unsustainable and that justice should not be seen as an obstacle to peace, but instead a requirement of long-term, lasting reconciliation. Without clarity on the details of a “managed transition,” Russia will be sure to lead the debate, the outcome of which will not favor the desires of the Syrian people or bring long-term stability to the region.
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